Since I had decided to focus primarily on the characters when I began this process, the obvious question arose: now that you've created them, what are they going to do? I decided that since I had invested the time and energy to develop characters who could make decisions (so to speak), I should respect them as the plot unfolded. I wanted to be sure to allow them room to breathe and not override their "free will" by cramming them into an artificially determined plot that they had no participation in.
The novel has two main characters, Natalie and Rob. Natalie believes (or wants to believe) that God is present in the world, communicating with those who will listen and resurrecting dead things of the past and present into a living future. Rob, however, feels more comfortable ascribing the inner workings of the universe to random chance. I wanted to use a process of writing which honored both of these perspectives and which wasn't heavy-handed. I tried to incorporate both of them in some degree which acknowledged the tension in my own life, where I find at times I can relate to both perspectives. (This concept of remaining in a place of tension between positions is in some ways a recurring theme in the book and is hinted at in the title).
As a writer, it was easiest to slip into the role of a pseudo-divine co-creator (as Natalie might hope for). I had the background information on the characters, a calendar with important dates marked, and an "outside of time" view as I wrote and edited asynchronously the past, "present", and future. It was finding a way to incorporate randomness that was the challenge. I'll detail below one of the methods that I used in my attempts to do so.
Part of Rob and Natalie's shared story is that they went to university together and had in common for a time the idealism of young people who haven't yet lived much outside the classroom (as opposed to apathy, indifference, resignation, or an idealism that has been tempered and strengthened in the face of experience, for example). Bumper stickers seemed to be a symbol of this type of mindset, and Bellingham was chock full of bumper stickers. I spent months hunting them, occasionally following cars further down the highway or driving dangerously close to them to get another pithy phrase to jot in my notebook.
As I prepared to write a new chapter, I took one of the bumper sticker slogans from my list and applied it to the chapter as a title before any words were written. I would remind myself every so often of the chapter title I was working under and tried to find some way, however nebulous or however much of a stretch it seemed at the moment, to allow that random bit of text to concretely effect the words I was writing and the events that were transpiring. I don't even remember what most of those random connections were at this point. Over the course of multiple revisions and edits, in some cases they may be completely gone. In others they may have become more critical elements of the story. One example that I do remember is in the introductory chapter (and that's only because the first chapter is so short). It will give you an idea of the sort of random connections I began to make, although obviously my interpretation of a particular chapter's bumper sticker could vary quite wildly from another.
The first chapter is titled based on a bumper sticker for "Food Not Bombs" and there are certain food-related themes that are still apparent in the writing, including a stop at a restaurant. Daydreaming about the phrase led me to visualize a plane that was dropping loaves of bread instead of explosives, and there is a scene in this chapter where Rob has (spoiler alert) quite literally dropped his burrito on the ground. Another fragment I can still identify as having originated in the bumper sticker is a bomb-inspired metaphor involving shrapnel.
It's a silly example, but overall I did find that trying to inject some randomness into the story helped to keep things fresh and forced me to think more explicitly about what each of the characters would do in a situation that I hadn't necessarily been prepared for.
For the curious, here's a list of the bumper stickers/chapter titles:
- Food Not Bombs
- Extinction Is Forever
- Poverty Is Violence
- I'm Not As Think As You Drunk I Am
- Mommy, What Were Trees Like?
- Kill Your TV
- Art Saves Lives
- Legalize Happiness
- Wear Your Own Skin
- Reality Is For People With No Imagination
- Earth First! We'll Destroy The Other Planets Later
- Thank You For Not Breeding
- Jesus, Save Me From Your Followers
- Not All Who Wander Are Lost
- Question Everything
- My God Is Too Big To Fit Inside One Religion
- Jesus Loves You (Everybody Else Thinks You’re An Asshole)
- If You Can't Change Your Mind, Are You Sure You Still Have One?
- Free Tibet